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Friday, August 04, 2020

Bertrand Russell on Competition

From time to time, whenever I feel I need a bracing dose of logic and realism, I turn to the writings of Bertrand Russell. I have been reading again his 1930 book “The Conquest of Happiness.” While it is dated in some respects, others seem uncomfortably prescient about the state of the world today, more than 70 years later.

Russell’s chapter on competition is full of such uncomfortably accurate thoughts, especially about how life is today in the United States and most of the developed world. Russell was not attracted to the American culture of the 1930s, and it shows; I think he would be truly appalled if he could see today’s version of the American Dream. Some of his comments also betray considerable upper-class British snobbishness, but if you can set these aside, he raises important questions about the cult of all-out competitiveness—as prevalent then as now.

He begins by searching out the basis for what he calls people’s fear over the struggle for life, describing it as “essentially trivial” in a business context. What he means, of course, is that no one in a rich country need genuinely fear death by starvation or want. This is debatable, even after 70 years, but his main point seems to me to be correct: Amongst people who are employed, especially those in managerial or leadership positions, competition is only about gaining more wealth, not preserving your existence. As he says:
What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.
For people engaged in this trivial struggle to outdo their neighbors and colleagues, every day becomes another contest and every small activity a race to be won or lost. Russell likens them to people using the all-out tactics of a sprint, when the race is actually a marathon. The level of short-term effort and concentration on winning each immediate stage is excessive, if the true winning line (the final measure of a good and happy life) is still far off. With all his or her attention fixed on daily competition with equally obsessive colleagues, the exhausted executive has no concern or energy for anything else. Winning and winning and winning again in every tiny contest is bound to produce continual tension and anxiety. It makes no sense as an ongoing way of life.

If life itself is seen as an unending contest, individuals and organizations will find their natures warped as a consequence. Competitive success in the business world demands actions which have as much to do with politics as ability—probably more. If competition is all, a taste for continual excitement, challenge, and immediate opportunities to gratify the lust for winning (and seeing others lose) will multiply. Thought, reflection, insight, and concern for others quickly become worth less than manipulation, toughness, ruthlessness, and cunning. What organizations reward, they increase among the people who work there, while what is less valued is decreased in proportion.

Judging the capabilities of a person (or an organization) through purely competitive criteria makes little sense. So does seeking happiness and a good life through competition at the expense of everything else. Competitive success is no real proof of ability, since most achievements are as likely to be due to luck as anything else; but people skirt over that and cling to the notion that success and failure are based entirely on personal qualities. It’s little wonder then that the upper ranks of organizations are populated mostly by people with a strongly competitive bias, a short-term mindset, an insatiable desire for power, and a decided taste for political games. Nor is it surprising to find them concentrating on activities demanding only a limited attention span and a constant taste for challenge and excitement.

As Russell writes:
The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness. I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life. A painter, let us say, who has been obscure throughout his youth, is likely to become happier if his talent wins recognition. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.
Competition too easily spills over into the whole of life, so that even supposed leisure activities become merely another arena for seeking to outdo others and claim bigger rewards. I wonder how many golf games are played for pure enjoyment, compared with the number played for the main purpose of schmoozing a client or winning business rewards? How many homes are chosen for the practical needs of housing a family, compared with those where ostentation and impressing other people dictate both size and location?

The greatest potential benefit of advanced technology is its power to remove want from people’s lives, together with the fear that tomorrow will bring starvation and disaster. Our greatest failure as humans is the way we have abused this power to provide obscene levels of affluence for a few while leaving the majority much where they were before. Organizational life provides a microcosm of this pattern, where the wealth of the few at the top increases at the expense of everyone else. What drives both is an obsessive emphasis on “trivial” competition: the competition to outdo those like yourself, not competition against a standard of excellence or good living that can apply to everyone.

I will leave the last word to Russell:
Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.


P.S. If you want to read Russell’s book yourself, it is still in print.


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